The Other Olympics
The annual battle royal of local lifeguards is more than a contest of strength, speed and endurance. It’s a tradition that celebrates a supreme responsibility—saving lives.
As competitors dive headlong into the surf for the balmy July night’s first event, Rehoboth Beach Patrol captain Kent Buckson can only sit in the sand and wait. He watches as his team falls behind the Sea Colony outfit, the early leader, after the evening’s first challenge—the half-mile swim—but a pep talk can wait.
The captain has more work to do.
“It’s a crazy day for me, but everybody else is having a blast,” he says.
For Buckson, the craziness began almost as soon as he headed past Dolle’s and Grotto Pizza on his way to beach patrol headquarters that morning.
Preparation for the Rehoboth Beach Patrol Lifeguard Olympics, held each July, lasted through the day, as guards hauled flags, buoys, landlines, rope and even extension cords to the 50-meter stretch of beach in front of headquarters.
At 4 p.m., more than two hours before its scheduled start, the event was already luring crowds. Around 5, competitors arrive from local beaches, including Rehoboth, which has won of 12 of the past 14 events, 2005 champions Ocean City, Maryland, 2004 champs Sea Colony, Dewey Beach, Middlesex and Bethany.
As they arrive, they immediately start preparing mentally for events such as a half-mile run, paddleboard rescue, Ironman medley and beach flags, which is like a sandy version of musical chairs. As the throng of competitors doubles in number, the crowd of spectators also continues to expand.
Though a contest and a spectacle, the olympics celebrates all lifeguards' reason for being: keeping the public safe.
Former RBP captain Jate Walsh would know a thing or two about that. He joined the beach patrol right before Neil Armstrong walked on the moon in 1969. Since he joined, the patrol has nearly doubled in size, from about 25 guards to nearly 50.
For those in charge, the competition is another serving on top of an already full platter. But for the contestants, the contest is the highlight of the summer.
“It gives us a reason to get together and train,” says lifeguard Jeff Kilner of Middlesex Beach. “This is the big one.”
Training for the competition takes a different approach than regular lifeguard drilling, says Middlesex guard Tyler Hastings; most of the contest scenarios are seen rarely in everyday work. “We train specifically for the competitions,” Hastings says.
But by staying in shape for the olympics, the guards stay in shape for routine situations, Walsh says.
“All of the beach patrols train hard, but when you’re out there, it’s a matter of reacting,” Walsh says. “You can go through two or three straight weeks of calm water, then one day it all blows up, and you’re in the water every 10 minutes. That’s why you need to be in shape at all times.”
This competition is the second big one of the season for Rehoboth Beach. It follows the Mid-Atlantic regional for the United States Lifesaving Association Championship.
“It’s a fun way to advertise what we do and it keeps lifeguards motivated and on top of their game,” Buckson says.
Since Buckson took over the captain’s duties—hiring of new guards, maintaining and updating equipment, overseeing training and more—there have been several improvements to the patrol, Walsh says.
Walsh knew his successor was special in 1987, when Buckson won the RBP Rookie of the Year award. Then there was the time Buckson paddled a kayak from Cape May, New Jersey, to Rehoboth Beach. So it came as no surprise when he became a national champion a couple years ago in the landline, a four-person event where a member with a lifeline swims to a teammate 120 meters offshore, then the other two pull the duo to shore.
For the national competitions, hosted by the USLA every summer, 10-person teams represent counties, not individual beach patrols. So over the years Buckson has become friendly with guards around Sussex. Though several patrols compete on the county team, it is hard to overlook the importance of the Rehoboth squad.
Founded by Benjamin Shaw as a two-man operation in 1921, the RBP has blossomed to 55 guards and equipment has improved, making it easier and safer to cover the mile-long stretch of shoreline.
“When I started (in 1969) all we had were bicycles,” Walsh says. “Then we got a moped, and we thought that was great. A few years ago we got an ATV, and now we have this Gator, which is like an all-terrain vehicle, except it has a hold on the back where you can put stretchers. It’s great in the sand, and it just makes rescuing people even safer.”
The growth of the patrol has also been reflected by the lifeguard olympics, which were first held in 1977 to commemorate the country’s bicentennial. The competition followed basic USLA guidelines. That changed in 1987, when four guards from Assateague Island, Virginia, showed up—then walked away with the trophy.
“They had this one guy that could swim like a fish, so they won every event that had swimming,” Walsh says. “So we added the tug-of-war to give other teams a chance.”
A few years ago organizers tried to remove the tug-of-war to stay in line with USLA rules, but the local guards fought it. “Besides, the fans really like to watch,” Walsh says.
So as spectators gathered around for the tug—the last of 11 events—Rehoboth was holding onto first place with a mere two-point cushion over Sea Colony and Ocean City.
Despite the roar of the crowd, Rehoboth drops out of the double-elimination tug early. It can only hope that its slim lead will be enough against the sturdily built Ocean City contingent and the powerful Sea Colony team.
The odds are not in RBP’s favor. Buckson sits atop a nearby shed and watches. It looks like his team might have to relinquish its title.
Suddenly, Ocean City is knocked out, and earlier than expected, adding only one point to its total. Sea Colony would last only long enough to get two points—just enough to force the first tie in the history of the event. Rehoboth still wins.
The joy of victory carries into the next morning. With the final standings posted outside RBP headquarters, the squad can boast another title.
As for Buckson, joy is replaced by another emotion: relief. He won’t have to worry about organizing another contest for almost a year.
“I got to sleep easy last night,” he says.